With millions of tax dollars at stake, the board members of two local job centers are supposed to attend quarterly meetings to scrutinize spending and policy decisions.
But many members rarely bother to show up, the Tampa Bay Times has found.
Dozens missed at least half of their CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay meetings since 2014, according to an analysis of agency records. Several, in fact, never showed up at all.
"They should be dropped," said Pinellas board member and electrician Tom Bedwell, who attends most meetings. "They’re not helping anybody. They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
The lax oversight is one reason why both jobs centers have come under federal and state investigations.
The U.S. Department of Labor and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity are investigating "allegations of serious misconduct and potential criminal conduct" and whether the centers inflated the number of job placements reported under former president and CEO Edward Peachey.
In recent weeks, federal auditors have pored over financial records and interviewed employees and board members.
CareerSource board members blame the lax attendance on the boards being too big, each with more than 30 positions, making it hard to talk at meetings or have much influence. All members are unpaid volunteers.
Several also criticized a policy that allows members to call into the meetings. Technical glitches make it hard to hear, participate in the discussions and record votes, they said.
At least seven board members disputed the attendance figures, pointing to the agencies’ poor record keeping.
None who spoke to the Times expressed regret for not providing better oversight.
Ultimately, the boards are appointed by and answer to the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions. Commissioners in each county said that federal labor officials told them that no other workforce boards operate with such little oversight.
Both commissions are now making current CareerSource board members reapply.
"At least half of the members don’t come and another third are on the phone where you really don’t have much participation," Pinellas commissioner Pat Gerard said. "It’s ridiculous."
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The Tampa Bay jobs centers are part of a network of 24 CareerSource centers across Florida tasked with putting people to work.
They are both publicly-funded nonprofits overseen by separate boards, which include members from education, business, government and labor organizations. The full boards meet four times a year, barring emergencies.
CareerSource Tampa Bay, which serves Hillsborough County, has 35 positions; Pinellas has 45. Open positions typically go unfilled for months. Federal law requires the boards to maintain a balance of representatives from different segments of the regional economy and government, which contributes to the board’s size.
County commissioners have final say over appointments, but in recent years they have offered little scrutiny to board applicants and performance. That has allowed a number of members to rack up spotty attendance records.
In its last eight meetings, the CareerSource Pinellas board has only once had more members physically in the room than absent or on the phone. Just 10 members of the CareerSource Tampa Bay board showed up to a meeting in December. Nineteen did not.
Pinellas Schools Superintendent Michael Grego missed every meeting in the last three years. He said he must juggle several board positions across the county. In April, after the Times asked questions, he resigned his position and recommended a subordinate take his place.
Pinellas member David Fries, a university scientist and business owner, last attended a meeting in person in March 2016, according to records. Fries moved a few years ago to Pensacola, he said, but has remained on the board by phoning into meetings. He didn’t participate weeks ago when the board voted to fire Peachey as the agency’s CEO. He declined to say how he would have voted.
"Because I wasn’t there to hear the complete discussions back and forth," he said. "... I can’t, I don’t have enough information."
The boards have an attendance quorum requiring that at least a third of their members be in attendance in order to conduct business. They routinely meet it by members phoning into a teleconference. Often they leave their phones muted and don’t participate.
CareerSource Pinellas board member and Goodwill Industries-Suncoast CEO Debbie Passerini said the phone-in option "helps busy executives save time but stay involved." She has phoned into three meetings since September 2017, records show.
Other members who have participated by phone say it is hard to hear, making the teleconference a poor substitute for in-person attendance. The phones also make it difficult to track participation, they say, because if a person joins the call after the meeting starts, they don’t always get recorded as having attended.
Several board members questioned the accuracy of CareerSource attendance records.
In Pinellas, CareerSource minutes show that County Commissioner Janet Long missed all four full board meetings in 2014. She said the records must be wrong and asserted that she would not have missed that many meetings.
In the same span, Hillsborough County commissioner Sandy Murman missed three board meetings, according to minutes. But she disputed the records, saying she has phoned in or had staff members represent her without it being accurately recorded.
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Some members said they stopped attending meetings because they had no control over decisions anyway.
Peachey consolidated power in executive committees, made up of about eight members, who regularly approved his requests, they said. The full board elects officers to the committee and the chairs select additional members.
Peachey did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2014, CareerSource Pinellas made a major purchase in west St. Petersburg: seven acres that included the 24,000 square-foot Science Center of Pinellas County.
Peachey pitched the idea to the executive committee in a 35-minute meeting May 2014. The panel approved it with little discussion. The sale closed days later. Peachey never asked the full board for approval, according to records.
"I’ve never seen a board work like that," said Debra Johnson, a Pinellas board member and executive director of the Pinellas Housing Authority, who called the meetings a "dog and pony show."
"The executive committee allowed (the CEO) to do what he wanted. The decisions were not made by the board."
Former St. Petersburg College President Bill Law said he attended a few meetings at CareerSource Pinellas but then stopped because the executive committee had already made the important decisions.
"All of us have day jobs," Law said. "I don’t remember the board being engaged in any policy matters."
Former Pinellas board member Stephen Sarnoff said Peachey and his confidantes did nothing at the meetings but "pat each other on the back." He added: "Most of it was a rubber stamp."
Even on the rare occasion when a board member questioned Peachey, the challenge received little traction.
In September 2016, Pinellas County commissioner Ken Welch, the board’s vice chair, accused Peachey of ending a contract with an accounting firm without proper approval from the board.
"This is the issue of the highest concern to me," Welch told the full board.
Welch speculated that Peachey fired the auditing firm because a former CareerSource employee had joined the company and knew too much about the agencies’ accounting practices.
The other board members listened as they ate sandwiches. None took issue with Peachey firing the firm.
The discussion ended, and Peachey gave a report about how well the agency compared to other CareerSource offices across the state.
"Mr. Peachey just saw these opportunities to get it the way he wanted it to be for his personal benefit," Murman said. "It’s not right. It wasn’t right."